WikiLeaks, Sputnik, and the Story of a (Perhaps) Russian Information Operation

WikiLeaks, Sputnik, and the Story of a (Perhaps) Russian Information Operation

On Oct. 21, 2015, Hillary Clinton confidante Sid Blumenthal fired off an email with an ominous subject line — “The truth…” — to a list of undisclosed recipients that included the Democratic presidential nominee’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. This week, Blumenthal’s email turned up in a trove of the Democratic powerbroker’s  released emails, and has become the center of a strange saga featuring WikiLeaks, Donald Trump, and wild allegations the Kremlin succeeded in putting into words from the mouth of the businessman and GOP presidential nominee.

The email from Blumenthal was in fact far more benign than the subject line might imply. It contained highlights and the full text of an article by Newsweek writer Kurt Eichenwald about the attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. That article concluded the GOP outrage over the incident was largely manufactured for political gain, but conceded that “the attack was almost certainly preventable.”

“If the GOP wants to raise that as a talking point against [Clinton,] it is legitimate,” Eichenwald concluded.

When that email was released by WikiLeaks on Monday and obtained by Sputnik, the state-controlled Russian news agency, it became something else altogether. Sputnik either misread or deliberately distorted the email as a message from Blumenthal about Benghazi, rather than the summary of another’s work.

“Hillary’s top confidante Sidney Blumenthal believed that the investigation into Benghazi was legitimate because it was “preventable” and the result of State Department negligence,” Sputnik reported in a story that has since been deleted.

Several hours after the publication of the Sputnik item, Trump read from Eichenwald’s article while on stage at a Pennsylvania rally and attributed it to “sleazy Sidney.”

“He’s now admitting they could have done something about Benghazi,’’ Trump declared.

Of course, there was no such admission from a member of the Clinton camp, an error that Sputnik itself has apparently realized and took down its article.

But Eichenwald saw a much larger conspiracy at play:

To be clear, the Russian government didn’t “falsify” an email; a state-backed news outlet misrepresented one. Information flowed from hacked emails obtained by WikiLeaks — just how remains unknown — into the hands of a Russian state-journalist who appears to have misread, either deliberately or mistakenly, a document. That a spurious report by a Russian propaganda outlet made it into Trump’s small hands and was repeated isn’t exactly surprising.

But coming on the heels of the U.S. intelligence community’s declaration Friday that Russia was responsible for recent computer breaches at the Democratic National Committee and other political organizations, and that the publishing of emails by WikiLeaks and others fits a pattern of Russian behavior, it’s tempting to see a grand plot by Moscow afoot here.

At the very least, Russian propagandists can count Monday’s events as a clear victory. Whoever wrote the Sputnik report, even if it was subsequently deleted, succeeded in getting the GOP nominee for president to parrot his article. That’s no small feat for a state-backed news agency, especially when you consider that the American equivalent of Sputnik basically labors in obscurity.

But is there a more damning conclusion to be had? Eichenwald wrote on Twitter that Trump “just recited false info from a Russian disinformation op as fact,” implying Moscow’s fingerprints were on both the WikiLeaks report and the subsequent, skewed Sputnik report.

But that relies on a set of circumstantial evidence that is very much up for interpretation. While the U.S. intelligence community has said that WikiLeaks’ publishing of hacked emails fits a pattern of Russian behavior, it remains unclear how Julian Assange obtained the email archive belonging to John Podesta. Given his publishing of emails obtained from the DNC, whose penetration by Russia is well documented, Assange may well be relying on his Moscow contacts.

The publishing of emails belonging to Clinton’s campaign chairman undoubtedly represents an information operation — Assange would call it an act of radical journalism — against the former secretary of state, whom the WikiLeaks founder loathes. But is it Moscow’s operation?

Russia is certainly the leading suspect, but its guilt is not an established fact. Rather, Eichenwald’s response is a symptom of our times. When the Russians are blithely hacking a huge number of American targets, it starts to seem like the Russians are everywhere and anywhere, without actually knowing that they are. This is how cyberspace breeds a particularly virulent strain of a paranoia.

Such inability to determine with any certainty the provenance of the information published on WikiLeaks illustrates why Russia is able to act so aggressively. Plausible deniability drastically lowers the cost of meddling in a foreign country’s election. At the same time, Washington has dithered in coming up with a response to Russian hacking.

On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said a U.S. response would be forthcoming and it would be proportional. He provided no clarity on the shape of U.S. retaliatory action, which could include sanctions or cyber operations against Russian targets. “It is unlikely that our response would be announced in advance,” he said.